Teshuvah: Turning & Returning
As human beings we are fallible, and therefore, need opportunities to learn and grow from our mistakes. The process through which Jews reflect on our behavior, acknowledge our missteps, and commit ourselves to a new (or renewed) way forward is called Teshuvah, “Return.”
The choice of the word “Return” is reflective of a fundamentally optimistic worldview in which people are understood to be essentially good, even as they are capable of making terrible errors in thought and deed. Though we may stray from the path of righteousness, there is always the possibility of finding our way home. The ancient rabbis were so committed to this idea that they taught that God actually created Teshuvah before fashioning the world (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Pesahim, 54a).
One sign of the abiding importance of Teshuvah to Jewish religious life is the fact that it is the animating theme of the High Holidays — Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Beginning one month before the Jewish New Year, we are enjoined to begin a process of soul-searching and making amends. This journey leads into, and is intensified during, the High Holy Days, also known as “The Days of Awe,” reflecting the gravity of this season of repentance and renewal.
The ancient rabbis also insisted that Teshuvah should be a part of our everyday lives, and not just reserved for a specific time of the year. They also speak in direct and challenging ways about the need to take responsibility, to ask for forgiveness, and to open ourselves to the heartfelt apologies of others.
In this unit, we will explore the different dimensions of Teshuvah mentioned above, key biblical and post-biblical sources of guidance on the subject, and various practices designed to help us engage in genuine processes of ethical and spiritual transformation.
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